The AFLW has arrived!

What happens next?

The AFL’s women’s competition has taken many by surprise. A pleasant surprise.

As a Bulldog supporter, I have been lucky enough to watch women play at the MCG for a number of years as a curtain raiser to our annual match against Melbourne. In fact, the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne football clubs should take credit for pioneering the new women’s competition.

I never thought women’s football would develop its own competition. I didn’t believe that the “boy’s club” that manages the game would make space for women players.

What I didn’t anticipate were the women working behind the scenes promoting the game for women players. Women like Susan Alberti. Alberti has to be one the most generous people I know. She has been vice-president of the Western Bulldogs from 2004 until recently. Her commitment to the women players and their competition is well recorded.

Like Sam Mostyn who sat on the AFL Commission between 2005 to 2015. She reported that she saw the “conversion” of Mike Fitpatrick (chairman of the Commission) when she took him into the women’s changeroom after a game and he heard the players talk about injuries, disappointments and triumphs of the day etc. He saw the camaraderie between the players and it took Fitzpatrick back to his playing days. He suddenly realised the thrill of the game is the same for the women as it is for the men. Go figure?

There are no doubt other women (and men) who are responsible for the new competition, not to mention the players who I haven’t mentioned.

My son plays for the Ashburton “Ashy” Redbacks, which is the largest junior football club in the country. For a couple of years, they have fielded a number of all-girl teams. Let me relate two personal experiences.

The first occurred last year, when during a break in my son’s game I wandered to the other oval to watch what, I would guess, were under 14 girls play. I was so absorbed by the ferocity of the contest that I almost forgot about my son’s match.

These players played with an intensity and a high level of skill. They seemed to run without tiring and to play with an understanding of the subtleties of the game. But above all they played hard. Tackles were intended to stick. Bumps were jolting on the opponent. But what I found intriguing was that the girls bounced back into play straight after any collision. Their lighter bodies seemed to absorb the shock and move on.

This meant the ball was always in motion and play flowed continuously. It was a refreshing change to the stop-start patterns and congestion that are creeping into the modern game. For a moment I thought that perhaps the game was perhaps more suited to women than to men.

The other thought that kept me busy was “Where did these girls come from?” What were they doing before football? A football team needs 22 players. That’s a lot of players. Four times the number needed for netball and basketball. Twice the number needed for a soccer team etc. Was there a mounting eagerness among girls and women to participate that has been suppressed for a long time? Have the girls been longing to play the same game as their brothers and fathers but have been prevented from doing so?

In truth, girls have been playing junior football for many decades. Generally they played with boys until the boys got bigger and stronger and a mixed competition was no longer feasible. Women played the game but only in isolated instances. But one should not overlook a number of women competitions that have survived many generations.

The other story concerns a coach. One the fathers I have known for short while was asked to coach his daughter’s team. At first he was hesitant about taking the job. He had never coached girls before. His mates teased him about his new appointment.

At the end of season presentation this coach gave a very moving speech about his team. He began explaining that his players had little if any experience with the game at the beginning of the season but they were keen to learn, to get better. (Isn’t that what sport is about? Doing better? Challenging oneself?)

He went on to say that he was heartened by the attention he received from the team. Unlike his experience with boys, he found that girls were receptive to instruction, they brought a maturity to training that he had not seen at that age level. They were quick to learn, encouraging of each other and determined.

A tear appeared in the corner of his eye as he explained that for a team that had little experience they progressed deep into the finals. This father sees himself as a tough guy but something within him has shifted.

The AFL probably underestimated the popularity of the womens’ competition. I say this for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, it gave the TV rights to Channel Seven and Foxtel for free for two years. Yet since the competition started it has attracted significant ratings. The game between Fremantle and the Bulldogs won that evening’s ratings, beating the ever popular My Kitchen Rules. Does the AFL regret such a freebie?

Secondly, the first game of the competition was a lock-out. I accept that admission was free but it was surreal to see AFL head, Gil McLachlan stand outside Ikon Stadium and personally apologise to fans who missed out. The stadium holds 25,000.

The AFL are congratulating themselves on the AFLW but we need to keep things in perspective. As my friend Steve reminds me, this move by the AFL is long overdue. Women have been playing professional soccer for 9 years and basketball for 36 years. There are a host of other professional sports that began as “male” sports but now welcome women players. In some respects the AFL has come to the table quite late.

Despite the initial success of the competition one has to be concerned about the AFL’s commitment.

The pay deal for women players needs to be revisited. Players are paid a minimum $8,500 for the season. Next year’s salary has already been fixed at $9,700. Seriously?

If the players train for eight weeks and play for another eight this remuneration is the equivalent of an annual salary of $27,600. This is to be compared to the average $250,000 paid to raw male recruits.

This is despite the fact that the competition is attracting high ratings. It is also attracting new sponsors such as Chemist Warehouse and Cotton On who have signed on until 2019 with a renewal option. These sponsors would not normally have been interested in the AFL. The money attracted by the new competition should be reflected in what is paid to the women players.

The competition needs to deepen its pool of talent. Large winning margins can be excused as the competition finds its feet but they will prove troublesome if they continue into a second and third season. The AFL needs to promote the game at all levels and ensure the talent pool continues to grow. This requires significant commitment.

Our attitudes need some adjusting. Don’t you cringe when the commentators refer to the players as “girls”? Show some respect, please.

This is an exciting time for the code. For too long, girls and women have been told this is a man’s game and that it was not for them. The AFLW gives its participants huge exposure before large crowds and larger television audiences.

Importantly, the women are changing the game, I believe for the better. They bring a new style to the game. They have attracted new sponsors, new money. They provide role models for a generation of girls. They may ultimately improve the game’s culture, which until now has been dominated by men.

But what happens next?

Someone said that a thousand mile march begins with a single step. The AFLW has bolted from the gates. It will quickly lose its way unless it receives the attention and resources it deserves.